Gepatschferner, AustriaHer feet steady on the glacier, Andrea Fischer pulls the blade of her chainsaw in a circle through the ice, shards flying toward her face. Inside the circle: a mummified chamois, an endearing goat-antelope mix perfectly adapted to the Alps. This one was just a kid—a young female no more than two feet tall.
The skin has slid off the animal’s head, pulling one horn with it and laying bare her deep eye sockets, but it’s still stretched taut and leathery over vertebrae and her ribcage. Tufts of walnut-colored fur, rippling in the wind, cover her hooved legs—powerful, agile limbs that in life would have launched her from rock to rock. In her last moments, she drew them close. She was probably around two years old.
“It’s incredible, and it’s incredible that she’s sitting exactly where we do our research, and that we passed right when it was coming out of the ice,” says Fischer, who has been studying Austria’s dwindling glaciers for more than two decades. A colleague named Martin Stocker-Waldhuber was checking on a weather station when he saw the chamois’ horns peeking out of melting ice, more than 11,000 feet up on Gepatschferner, a large glacier on the Italian border.
Glaciers all over the Alps are melting at an unprecedented rate this summer. Last winter’s scant snows melted early, leaving the ice unprotected against the heat waves that have lately swept across the continent. By the end of the season, Fischer says, as much as seven meters of ice, or 23 feet, will have melted off the surface of glaciers in the eastern Alps—far more than in any previous year.
Sad as this dramatic loss is, there’s also a thrilling sense of anticipation: What other well-preserved relics of the past might emerge from the ice?
In recent years, long-lost hikers have been found in the Alps, as well as frozen soldiers from the high-altitude battle that Italy and Austria waged against each other during World War I. About 150,000 men died, and many were buried by avalanches or froze to death in snowstorms. Some have been found partially mummified in the ice.
“With the melting of the glaciers, there should be more of these finds, maybe also other humans showing up in the ice,” says Albert Zink, head of the institute for mummy studies at Eurac Research, in Bolzano, Italy. “Actually, it’s quite likely.”
What everyone’s hoping for, he says, is another prehistoric human like the one he has been studying for more than a decade: Ötzi the Iceman, discovered by pure chance in 1991. Ötzi is five thousand years old, ten times older than Fischer’s chamois—but thousands of years’ worth of ice are melting in the Alps this summer.
The chamois may just be the beginning.
A chopper to the chamois
Early on August 4, photographer Ciril Jazbec and I joined Fischer and her team for the helicopter flight to the top of Gepatschferner, where the clouds sit at eye level.
Stocker-Waldhuber actually first saw the horns sticking out of the ice last summer, but too little of the animal was emerging for it to be extracted safely before winter snow buried it again. After much more melt this summer, the researchers seized a narrow window of opportunity to retrieve the chamois.
“We’ve got two days, perhaps three,” Fischer had said when she first told me about the find.
At 11,500 feet, the weather can change in an instant, rendering helicopter flights too dangerous. And once fully exposed to the air by the melting ice, the mummy will quickly decompose—if bearded vultures circling in the sky above the glacier don’t devour it first.
That leaves Fischer no time to work as painstakingly as an archaeologist. After she frees the frozen chamois with her chainsaw and ice axe, she lifts it off the ice and onto a plastic sheet. She notes the foul stench—then quickly wraps the mummy and seals it off with tape.
A native of the Alps, Fischer first crossed glaciers as a teenager. Much of that ice is long gone, she says.
The 4,000 glaciers in the Alps have been retreating, by and large, since around 1850, but human-made climate change has rapidly accelerated their demise. By 2100, most will have lost the vast bulk of their ice, leaving just tiny patches that may or may not be called glaciers, according to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2019.
Glaciologists like Fischer know all this. And still, she says, “I think none of us could have ever imagined how dramatic this summer could be.”
On Gepatschferner, the dripping and cracking noises grow louder as the sun rises higher—as if the glacier is sounding its own requiem. By noon, long before we board the helicopter for the flight down the mountain, we are stumbling through ankle-deep puddles.
About eight meters of ice remain under the chamois, Fischer says, dating back 6,000 years. She estimates this spot will lose about 4,000 years of ice this year.
Finds like this are rare
Earlier in the summer, I had joined Fischer on a trip to another one of her research sites, the Jamtal glacier along the Austrian-Swiss border. As we hiked up the narrow valley, she pointed out a crumbling, overgrown stone encirclement, built by prehistoric humans to protect cows, sheep, and goats from bears and wolves. Such traces of long-gone settlements are scattered across the Alps.
Around 6,000 years ago, much of the eastern Alps were ice-free. Because the valleys were densely forested swamps, the mountain slopes were where people lived. But by 5,000 years ago, when Ötzi was pierced by an arrow and bled to death on Similaun glacier, just a few miles southeast of Gepatschferner, the ice had begun to grow again.
Upon his discovery 31 years ago, Ötzi was first believed to be a 20th-century hiker or skier who had died in an accident. A local police officer hacked into his hip as he tried to get him out of the ice. For easier transport down the mountains, his bow was broken in half. Then the village undertaker broke his arm to make him fit in a coffin.
Just how much the recovery of this archaeological treasure was botched seems ludicrous now, but scientists were dumbstruck when they realized Ötzi was an ancient, completely intact mummy. Nothing like it had ever been found in a glacier. That’s for good reason, says Norwegian glacial archaeologist Lars Holger Pilø.
Though countless humans and animals have no doubt died on glaciers, Pilø explains, we shouldn’t expect to find many of them, because the ice in a glacier is in constant motion, slowly flowing down into the valley and being replenished by fresh snow at the top. Over centuries, the ice would carry dead animals and humans with it.
“Their bodies would have been damaged and crushed by the moving ice,” Pilø says.
Since Ötzi, though, scientists have realized that there are exceptions to this rule: motionless patches adjacent to or even amid the moving sea of ice. They’re places where the bedrock is flat and the ice cold enough to freeze to it, and not so thick that it begins to flow under its own weight.
Pilø has identified more than 60 motionless ice patches in his Norwegian county of Innlandet alone. Discovering a human mummy in one of them, he says, is his “holy grail.”
Another Ötzi this year?
Fischer’s chamois is now safely stored in a minus 20ºC freezer outside Innsbruck, in the research center of Ferdinandeum, the Tyrolean state museum. The animal is waiting to go through a CT scan, and to have the insides of its gut examined. By studying it along with a 400-year-old chamois mummy that Zink’s team retrieved in 2020, scientists hope to learn more about the little-known history of this species, and perhaps why the two animals ventured out onto glaciers and perished there.
“So far, the best thing I worked on was a panda from the zoo,” Peter Morass, head taxidermist at Ferdinandeum, told me. “But this chamois trumps everything.” In the future, the chamois will be put on a special display at the Innsbruck museum.
For Zink, the two chamois are a chance to learn more about the same processes of mummification that produced Ötzi—and about how best to retrieve and preserve ice mummies across the globe. His institute has already developed conservation boxes that can keep organic specimens sealed and stable at minimal costs.
“So that, when more come out, we are prepared,” Zink says.
Finding mummies was never part of Fischer’s plan. As a glaciologist, she was interested in the motionless spots in glaciers for a different reason: They’re places where she can drill into old ice and extract a record of how climate has warmed and cooled in the Alps over the millennia.
But now that climate is warming rapidly, she realizes that her work as a glaciologist has perfectly positioned her to find the next Ötzi.
Later this summer, when the glaciers reach their peak melt, she plans to fly over the still spots she knows; she has found about 10 in the Austrian Alps. She’ll be scanning the ice for signs that another iceman—or woman—is emerging into the light.
“If it happens,” she says, “then it’s this summer.